The Smart Phone and Privacy

The Wall Street Journal has been all over the recent Smart Phone controversy–and if you have a subscription, be sure to take a look at the lead story in the Reviews section of today’s paper. In the meantime, our colleagues at MIT and the Santa Fe Institute have gotten well-deserved kudos for their recent academic studies of smart phone-generated data sets as predictive tools for human behavior, emotion and attitudes. Although, as has been pointed out–much of the recent work with smart phones was pioneered in traffic analysis work from the intelligence community in the last century.

On the other hand, smart phones are rather unique devices in that they can harvest vast quantities of data about ourselves in more-or-less real time and to a first approximation we assume they are under our own control–which they may not be.

And that’s the nub: as with Facebook, it’s unclear which parts of our smart phone are actually under our control and which parts are not, particularly with regards to personal information that many folks may consider private.

I was struck recently while getting my new Iphone 4 in the Apple Store how aggressively the “find my iphone” capability was pushed at me by the Apple employee handling my purchase. And later, after reading today’s Wall Street Journal piece, as I experimented with turning off location services, I couldn’t help notice the warning that: if I were to shut off location services, then I would no longer be able to find my iphone.

Of course, the above stands to reason. But I can’t help but assume that Apple is using the harvested data from location services as creatively as Professor Pentland at MIT.